She gently pulls canoes out of fortune-cookie dough, bakes a mean bannock and does not shy away from roasting a beaver. Martha Stewart, eat your heart out—or Marie-Cecile Nottaway will do it for you.
Fresh berries, maple syrup, homemade bannock and roasted beaver are standard fare for this Algonquin woman who, inspired by family recipes, has built a booming catering business that puts a contemporary spin on her nation’s traditional food. You could say food is in her blood. But while she may seem to be channeling Martha Stewart, Nottaway—who has a degree in culinary arts—says the true trained chefs in her life were her kokomic, her Algonquin grandmothers.
Nottaway, originally from Rapid Lake, Quebec, is the owner and powerhouse behind Wawatay Catering, so named in honor of family members who have passed on. Wawatay means northern lights in the Algonquin language and represents the colors of the spirits of the ancestors who continue to guide their loved ones from the spirit world.
“Wawatay is also my dad’s last name and my grandfather’s,” says Nottaway. “It represents who I am.”
Also representing who she is are the many strong Anishinaabe First Nation women from which she has descended. She says she grew up in the bush, where she developed her culinary skills as a young girl by closely watching her grandmothers prepare traditional foods. She vividly recalls seeing a rabbit prepared: “Sear it, add a little bit of water, throw a tea bag in there with salt and pepper, and cook it on an open fire,” she recalls. “Two hours later it was this beautiful, braised rabbit.” Nottaway remembers her grandmother cooking beaver this way too.
Life in the bush was simple, but that doesn’t mean it was easy. “To do dishes in the bush, you gotta fetch water by hand, then boil the water,” Nottaway says. “In order to boil the water you had to make a fire, and in order to make a fire you had to get the wood.” But that life also taught her to improvise. “For instance, if you went fishing for walleye but you caught a sucker, guess what? You’re having sucker for lunch.”
She got her diploma in chef training and culinary management in 2001 from Algonquin College in Ottawa, and launched her own catering business just last year. “I took what I learned from Algonquin College and what I learned from my kokomic, and it’s like, bam!” she says, confidently echoing the signature exclamation of TV chef Emeril Lagasse.
Even a brief chat with Nottaway reveals that she’s full of excitable energy, and with good reason. A mother of two, married to her high school sweetheart and operating her own business, Nottaway is living her dream. But it didn’t come easy. Nottaway struggled in culinary school, failing several courses. When she finally did finish, she found out that she was expecting their first child. Then there were the financial obstacles associated with starting a catering business from scratch. “Trying to come up with five-star recipes on a two-star budget,” she says. “The only financial aid I had was my husband’s credit card.”
Any profit she made would go either toward making payments on her husband’s credit card or used to buy as much equipment as possible. She also confesses that she lacked confidence last year. She feared people wouldn’t like her food or that she wouldn’t be able to pull it off. She says she could not have made it through those early days without the help of her family and close friends. “I couldn’t ask for a better support system than what I’m getting,” she says. “My family really gets involved. My husband goes hunting for me for a moose.”
Nesting on her husband’s community of Kitigan Zibi, an Algonquin First Nation located 80 miles north of Ottawa, she does the bulk of the cooking in their home. Her kitchen has been retrofitted with a double oven, a broiler and a propane stove. The more gigs she gets, the faster she adds to her workspace.
She presents some food in miniature birch-bark canoes, her hallmark being the “cookie canoe.” After she perfected a fortune-cookie recipe that she calls tuile, she crafted canoes out of the dough and filled each one with a dessert. It was one way to green her catering operation and was a hit with diners as well. “I didn’t want to create garbage,” she says. “I didn’t want to use Styrofoam and plastic cups.”
Irene Compton, the employment program coordinator at Minwaashin Lodge, a First Nation organization providing services to women whose families suffer the intergenerational effects of family violence and the residential school system. Minwaashin Lodge was Nottaway’s first client. “She’s like an Indian Martha Stewart,” says Compton, laughing. “She is a trained chef; her food is tasty and natural. She is going to be very successful.”
One of Nottaway’s greatest inspirations is her younger sister Alison Nottaway. Born with osteogenesis imperfecta (known as brittle bone disease) Alison is bound to a wheelchair. But it was Alison who helped Marie-Cecile push herself professionally, while still taking the time to appreciate life and those in it.
Meanwhile, Nottaway is taking an online business course and has already completed an accounting course. To date, her clients include school boards, universities, First Nation communities, health centers, symposiums and pow wows. This summer she will cater two weddings. Her goal is to one day hire young people, particularly women, for her burgeoning business. And while she’s a young businesswoman hungry to do better than she did the day before, she strongly believes in healthy communities. Five percent of her proceeds go toward supporting physical fitness and cultural activities for First Nation families.